Third places and life lessons

Posted by jlubans on March 17, 2011

As often happens with me, something of interest in one book triggers an insight in another. So it’s been while re-reading Ray Oldenburg’s, The Great Good Place, subtitled: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day. (New York: Paragon Books, 1989)

I was hoping to link for my management students in Latvia a brief chapter about the so-called “third place” (that one leg of a satisfactory life’s tripod: home, job, and “other place”, neither work nor home) to the role of the library in our social lives. Well, I am still looking for that link. Oldenburg himself does not see a library as a likely third place, a hangout, with our infrastructure of rules and regulations and our other lofty purposes.

But, in my meanderings, I was reminded of a local history book I’d purchased a few months ago in what might qualify as a great good place: Virlie's Grill. It sits right there on Main Street in little Pittsboro, North Carolina, not all that far from Chapel Hill.

Virlie’s Grill comes close to the kind of place Oldenburg laments is disappearing across the land. A place of yesterday where the regulars welcome each other with small talk, exaggeration, good humor and kindness. Where no one remains a stranger, as long as they adapt to the norms of the place and await an invitation to join in. Third places do not tolerate blowhards or the solitary or gregarious drunk. Third places encourage pleasantly passing one’s time; a releasing of pressure from troubles at work or at home among familiar and friendly faces. There’s an easy equality among those present and anyone inflating himself with the hot air of self importance soon feels a tiny pin prick - SHHHHHhhhhh - and comes down to earth a better person.

On my way out of Virlie’s, a book propped up at the checkout counter caught my eye: it was a book edited, illustrated and fussed and, maybe fumed over, at one of Virlie’s tables: Walk in ‘e Moon by LaVerne Thornton with illustrations by Perry Harrison. The counter man, (Virnie himself?) got me a new, autographed copy from out back.

Walk in ‘e Moon relates in brief stories – many charmingly illustrated - what LaVerne Thornton learned while a young boy growing up in a rural section between the North Caroline and Virginia state borders, The Bend, an isolated settlement of about thirty families on the Dan River. An impoverished area, it was rich with life lessons. One that sticks with me is about LaVerne’s riding in a cart loaded with tobacco leaves behind his father’s tractor. He and his Dad had spent the day picking tobacco leaves and were on their way to the tobacco barn.

LaVerne’s job was to keep an eye on the harvested leaves so they would not fall off. Well, several fell off along the way but LaVerne did not holler to stop or jump off to scoop them up, even though that was his job.

When his dad finally called LaVerne on his failure, LaVerne whined, “Daddy they ain’t worth picking up.”

LaVerne’s father stopped the tractor, turned it off, and asked him: “You tell me, how many leaves would have to fall off before they were worth picking up?”
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If the fallen tobacco leaves were our ethical codes, how many must fall off before we pause and pick them up?

* on pages 164-165, “Idle Hands…”

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